Let me begin by saying that my quads hurt.
It was an early start to the day. Even though I was only going to be racing in the Men's cat4/5 race (the last race of the day), I was hitching a ride out to DeKalb with my teammates who were racing earlier and so we had to leave early. Bikes partially dismantled and stuffed in the back of the car and coffee in hand, we rolled into Hopkins Park during the Masters races and were able to take our time setting up and still have loads of time to pre-ride the course before our first races.
I was able to walk a lot of the course while Zach ripped along in the single-speed open. The course was much longer than I expected, with laps being just shy of two miles. Having never even been to a cross race before, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I guess it wasn't that. Partly as a result of the course being so long, lap times were long. And that meant in a 30-minute race there might only barely be time for three laps! I had to learn the course in advance somehow; there would be no time during the race. So I walked and snapped photos and looked at the line around the track. I ate lunch, and at the insistence of my teammates I suited up and went for a pre-ride. In between races, the track opens for ten or so minutes and registered competitors can so a practice lap. I felt weird doing a lap so early - three hours until my race - but it turned out that no one was judging me openly for it and it was all in my head. It was a good thing I did the ride. I was bouncing around like crazy because I hadn't let any air out of my tires, which were like rocks at 80 psi. Many of the corners I had misjudged in my walk earlier, the fast off-camber sweepers were slipperier than I thought and the tight, muddy hairpins grippier. But the most surprising thing was how difficult it was to maintain any kind of speed on grass and mud! I don't think I've ever worked as hard for a low-teens average speed. I did my lap, got off the course, and went to cheer on Leah.
With one ride of the course under my belt, I had a rough idea of a good line. But it had felt so forced, there was no flow. So I walked to some of the trickier parts of the course and watched the lines that the fast riders were taking. Where they coast, power, and brake. How they shift their weight. The race ended, and I went to ride the course again. I dropped my tire pressures to something lower (I didn't have a gauge, so I made them as low as I could without living in constant fear of pinch flats), flipped my stem so I could get lower, and got back on course. The difference in the dynamics of the bike was immediately noticeable. The tires rolled more smoothly, absorbed more of the chatter from the course, and gripped so much better. I was finding a line through some of the more technical sections, but also realizing that with the large open areas on the course I was just going to need a lot of power. I'm not a sprinter. I had to find all my time in the corners. Off the course, I went to watch the next group. Watch, pre-ride, repeat. And then it was time to grid.
Category 4/5 was the beginner race, and consequently had the largest field of entries. I had no prior experience and had registered only a few days before, so the only people behind me were those with no experience who registered that morning. There weren't a lot of them. I was placed 118 in a group of 129, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with other riders on the starting grid. The guy next to me joked about how we wouldn't even know when the race started, since we were so far back. I laughed uneasily.
And then there was cowbell.
The pack took off. I knew I had to sprint hard for the start to get ahead of the pack before the first corner, but that wasn't happening. I am not a strong sprinter, and as such I made up only two positions before the first corner. I was hopelessly stuck in traffic, riding as hard as I could and trying to find a gap when my brain forgot I was on a bike. It was just like any other race I'd ever done. Go-kart, open-wheel, whatever. Everyone was on the same line, either missing the apex entirely or coming in way early. I poured on the power, braked late, apexed later, and was out of the mess in three corners. I had my line, I could focus. I could struggle to stay on the wheel of the rider in front of me on a straight, stay wide coming in, and then cross inside on the apex and fly past on the exit. I was a machine. Mud and grass were ripped mercilessly by my tires. Accelerate hard on the pavement section, Jump the roots on the transition, comb into the sweepers... and run out of lungs coming back out. I was coasting on the downhill, barely halfway through my first lap and I'd forgotten what pacing was. My lungs were on fire, my heart pounding, and my legs still had more to give. Catch a few breaths on the downhill and power through. "You're young and stupid," I thought to myself. "You can keep this up." I tried just to hold pace coming out of the woods, cut high over a sharp off-camber bend, and felt my heart jump into my throat when my pedal struck the ground and bounced my rear wheel off. Dirt is marvelously forgiving in combination with low tire pressures, because I don't think I would have managed to not crash there in any other circumstance. Off the bike, over the barriers, back on the bike, fly down the hill, breathe. This is supposed to be fun, but my lungs burn. Catch air off a lip and make a pass before both tires are back on the ground. "Hey! Mountain biking called! They want their jumps back!" Gotta love hecklers. Sprint across the line, start the next lap. Flow through the first section. Lungs are burning, legs are feeling it now. Shift early, pass someone who forgot and ran out of steam at the bottom of the hill. Fly over the pavement in the big ring, dodge the downed cyclist in the middle of the course (he looks like he'll be OK). Pedal strike again on a fast sweeper trying to keep the power down. Get lucky again. Coming back down the back straight I feel like I'm going to vomit, and I check my watch. Only one more time through. I can do it. The last lap is pain. My legs are running out of steam, and I have to shift the work to my quads just to make it up the hills. It's all I can do to make the occasional pass, and I have to be careful of my line so make sure that the people I do manage to pass can't immediately overtake me on a straight. Off the bike. Over the barriers. "Get a haircut, that's costing you like five watts!" Gotta love hecklers. Back on the bike at the same time as a few others, but I was running faster and got the jump on them. Miss the clip-in. Dammit dammit dammit. They pass me. They're coasting on the downhill. I pedal, and miss the jump so I can keep getting the power down but I just can't catch them. I'm over the line. The race is done and all I want is to throw up and drink some water. I do neither, and opt to get off my bike and collapse instead.
Leah found me in a heap on the ground, and we loaded up the bikes. On the trip home I checked the results. 55th? And 22nd of the cat5s? Maybe it was worth the early burn! In all, I passed other riders in three laps. I also learned a lot of lessons to take with me next week.
Setup is really important. To an extent I haven't known since working R&D at NASCAR, tire pressure is really, really important. It makes sense that a tire will grip better on loose surfaces at 40psi than 80psi, but very small variations also make a huge difference. I don't know what my pressures were, I just kept letting air out until they felt OK. Having an accurate pressure gauge and recording how a given tire performs under any set of conditions at a pressure would probably be a good idea.
Practice the course, not just the skills. I did have a little practice with carrying my bike and dismounts/remounts, but in a given lap I was off my bike once for ~30s per ~8m lap. What made up time was having done so many pre-rides. I found a good line and a few other ones in corners I thought would be busy. Knowing my line going in made it much easier and less stressful when I was trying to navigate traffic during the actual race.
Power is key. The structured training I have done is geared towards my primary interest of ultra-endurance road racing. Looking at heart rate data, I train a lot of zone 3-4 so I can sit in zone 2-3 all day long. From the time the race started until I hit the finish, I didn't come below zone 4. I was not ready for that.
So with those things in mind I'm training this week. I'm starting high-intensity intervals early in the week, and a cross-specific practice mid-way through to build technical skill and get more comfortable with finding the limits of the bike and tires. Dan Ryan Woods, the next race, is Sunday. It's a bit more technical than Hopkins Park, and I'm really excited to see what they come up with.
In the mean time, I'll be busy falling off my bike.